The Foods of Athenry: Singing the praises of farm diversification

The challenges of farming led to the family behind The Foods of Athenry down a whole new path.

“We had 100ac of low-lying grassland. We would be situated partially in a river basin, and so during excessive wet weather, over half of the land would have flooded on a regular basis,” said Siobhan Lawless, who is owner/director of the well-known brand which is based at Oldcastle, Athenry.

“We were in dairying but were challenged by both the wet fields and the many farm divisions, with fields going half a mile in either direction from the farmhouse, and the then milking parlour.

After the fire in our bakery in 2011 that wiped us out and saw us close for 10 months, we sold approximately 15ac to get us back in business. Currently, the rest of the land is rented,” Siobhan said.

We diversified because of necessity, opportunity and a love of good food. We needed money; agriculture for us was circling the drain.

“An opportunity dropped in my lap to make brown soda bread for Moran’s, The Weir in Kilcolgan back in 1998. As a keen amateur baker and a philosophy of ‘better to try and fail than never try at all,’ a bakery business was born,” said Siobhan.

“With five young children, I was careful with what they ate. And the basis of the business became the idea that if I would not feed it to my children, then I would not feed it to someone else’s. As the business expanded into free from, it was about enabling better choices for all. We would never compromise in terms of food quality, of best taste, of unnecessary additives.”

A home-baking enterprise had been set up in 1998 by Siobhan to supplement a dwindling farm income. With five young children under 12 years-of-age at that point, every little helped. The bakery was in a converted bicycle shed on the farm.

By 2004, with a few successful years behind her, and with the agricultural landscape showing little signs of recovery, the first bold steps were made when the milking cows were sold, and the bakery moved into the newly available agricultural building space.

With Siobhan and her husband Paul as 50:50 shareholders, The Foods of Athenry was incorporated.

With an ethos steeped in the belief that good food promotes good health, the business grew year on year, making and selling wheat baked bread/pastries throughout Galway. All was well in the world.

“By 2010, the decision was made to expand into an emerging growth market, free from and certified gluten free that would allow us to service both the domestic and an international market, developing and making a naturally extended longer shelf life baked grocery range.

“Extra production space was added by converting more outbuildings, new branding and new product development undertaken, with a view to launching this second arm of the business in the summer of 2011 which never materialised,” Siobhan said.

Devastating

A devastating fire in June 2011 closed the business for 10 months from mid-2011 to the second quarter of 2012.

“Once back, traction in the ‘regular’ wheat market was decimated due to our absence on shelves and the plan to use the turnover from the wheat bakery to support the new gluten-free bakery was scuppered. The gluten-free endeavour would have to work tirelessly to fly almost solo,” said Siobhan.

“At that point finance was hard to source, we were under-insured and under pressure. Who would believe it was possible to come back from that and almost no one did except for ourselves. And so to enable us to rebuild and re-start, we sold some land to get us back in the game.

Paul and I are forever grateful to the neighbour who bought from us at a fair price, as without them who knows what might have happened. When Paul looks at that field – probably one of his best – he feels a little nostalgia. I feel blessed, and no other field has ever, or could ever, have contributed so much to us on our journey to here.

The Foods of Athenry currently employs 24 staff who live locally in east Galway. Four family members are involved. Paul and Siobhan Lawless are joined by daughter Grainne who looks after production/operations and daughter Meadhbh who concentrates on design/artwork.

The family financed the outbuilding conversion themselves. “Over the years, we have had support initially from Galway Rural Development and more recently from Enterprise Ireland for the purchase of machinery.

“Staff grants are a little more complex and while there are some available; we have not really availed of those as much as maybe we could have,” said Siobhan.

Food and health

“The fire in 2011 encouraged our focus on the free from market. I have always had a huge interest in the relationship of food and health. As a farm family in the countryside, we were reasonably self-sufficient. We also had children with health problems, many of them attributed to their diet.

“We wanted to provide choice, to give people great tasting treats that did not make them feel deprived. We developed our cookie shots as part of our ‘mindful eating’ philosophy – smaller portions that allow you to make personal food choices, that can negate the guilt that comes with indulgent foods,” Siobhan said.

“The special dietary or free from segment is a huge growth sector, both in Ireland and around the world. More and more of us have digestive and other issues. My own husband – the dairy farmer – developed a dairy allergy in the last few years.

But many people are considering their own impact on the environment and are making their own personal dietary choices in a way like never before.

“Coeliacs, who have a diagnosed autoimmune disease and who and have no choice but to remove gluten from their diet, currently run at about one in 100 people in Ireland. But many more may remain undiagnosed with their symptoms being put down to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other issues.

“The Foods of Athenry target-markets are coeliacs as well as health-focused consumers. Healthy eaters are label readers and take an holistic approach to their well-being. Our products are gluten free, with some products also dairy/egg and/or vegan,” Siobhan said.

“Our product range consists of cookies – both mini cookie ‘shots’ and café style cookies – flapjacks, bars including our best-selling vegan rocky road bar, crackers, cereals and Christmas specialities.

“With more than 60 awards to date – including Great Taste Awards, Irish Food Awards and Free From Food Awards, we like to think we more than guarantee our taste,” said Siobhan.

The Foods of Athenry exports to the UK, a little into Europe and the Middle East and has just started sending product to New Zealand and Australia.

So what tips has Siobhan got for others keen to follow in her foodie footsteps?

“Sometimes luck has a huge part to play – right product, right place, right time. Smaller food producers do not have unlimited access to funds and growth needs to be measured and sustainable,” she said.

Her tips include:

  • Make sure your product has a right fit in the export market. Taste profile right, is sufficiently different as to be interesting, and that the pricing will generate sales;
  • Visit the market, go to the stores, check the potential competition. You may get a small premium for your product, but it may be unlikely consumers will pay twice as much;
  • Put a lot of thought into your packaging and your product message. This tells your story and it needs to tell it well and quickly. Seconds is all you have on a shelf for someone to make a decision;
  • Find a route to market. That can be the hardest bit. Usually small producers will need to get a distributor to handle their product in an export market. We don’t have the funds to put someone on the ground.

The family plans to continue to grow The Foods of Athenry.

“We want to add extra products into the range in line with consumer needs and expectation and create more jobs in Athenry. We want to increase our exports which are only approximately 18% of turnover at the present,” said Siobhan.

Whatever about songs to sing, this dynamic family had dreams and the vision and work ethic to bring them to fruition.

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